Thursday Night Open Thread

Two weeks from today, Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to work in Tampa. Baseball’s getting close. Among the players already working out in Tampa are CC Sabathia, Andrew Miller, Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo, Dustin Ackley, Mason Williams, Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Michael Pineda, Aaron Hicks, Ben Gamel, James Kaprielian, Rob Refsnyder, and Nathan Eovaldi, according to Steven Marcus and Erik Boland. The first Grapefruit League game is a little less than one month away. I can’t wait.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks and the three local hockey clubs are all playing, plus there are a few college hoops games on the schedule as well. Have at it.

The Unsung Heroes of the 1996 Postseason

Lloyd. (Getty)
Lloyd. (Getty)

The 1996 World Series was the first Yankees championship of my lifetime, and my lasting memories of that October will be Jeffrey Maier, Jim Leyritz’s homer, Andy Pettitte out-dueling John Smoltz, Joe Girardi‘s triple, and Charlie Hayes squeezing his glove in foul territory. Those were the major “holy crap” moments.

The Yankees got contributions from up and down the roster that postseason, including some from unexpected sources. Every team needs a few unsung heroes to win a title and the 1996 Yankees were no different. Three players in particular came up big throughout the 1996 postseason. In this post, we’re going to remember those unsung heroes.

Wade Boggs

It’s odd to call a Hall of Famer an unsung hero, especially after Boggs hit .311/.389/.389 (98 OPS+) during the regular season, but the Chicken Man was not at his best in October. The 38-year-old struggled mightily in the ALDS and ALCS: he went 3-for-27 (.111) in the nine games, including a hard to believe 0-for-22 stretch at one point.

The struggles got so bad that Boggs didn’t even start Games Three, Four, and Five of the World Series. Joe Torre went with Charlie Hayes at third base. Boggs still came off the bench to make a significant contribution in Game Four, however. After Leyritz tied the game with his home run off Mark Wohlers, Game Four went to extra innings. The Yankees rallied for the win in the tenth.

That tenth inning rally started with two outs. Steve Avery, who was in the Braves bullpen for the postseason, quickly retired Leyritz and Graeme Lloyd on ground outs. (Lloyd batted for himself because John Wetteland was the only reliever left in the bullpen, and Torre was saving him for the save situation. Whatevs.) Tim Raines followed with a walk and Derek Jeter with a ground ball single to put runners at first and second.

With Bernie Williams at the plate and the go-ahead run at second base, Braves skipper Bobby Cox opted to intentionally walk Williams and push the go-ahead run to third. Andy Fox was the cleanup hitter at the time because he had pinch-run for Cecil Fielder earlier in the game. Cox wanted Avery to face Fox in that situation, not Bernie. Which I guess makes sense. Except Torre had an ace in the hole.

Cox is not stupid, he knew Boggs would pinch-hit, but he was more comfortable with Avery facing Boggs with the bases loaded than Avery facing Bernie with runners on first and second. Not sure I agree with giving a pitcher so little margin for error in a huge spot (Boggs’ OBP > Bernie’s AVG), but it doesn’t matter what I think. Boggs pinch-hit for Fox and worked a go-ahead bases loaded walk to give the Yankees the lead. He fell behind in the count one ball and two strikes before battling back for the walk.

“My belief is, you’d better have some big guts in this game. If you can’t do that as a manager, you won’t go very far. You can’t ever be afraid to do those things,” said Cox to reporters after the game when asked about the intentional walk to load the bases and put the go-ahead run at third. “I wasn’t afraid to walk Bernie Williams. And I wasn’t afraid with Avery. I know that Steve — blindfolded — could throw strikes. It just didn’t happen.”

The Yankees tacked on an insurance run when Ryan Klesko dropped a soft line drive, but by that point the damage had been done. The team had rallied with two outs and Boggs drove in the go-ahead run with a bases loaded pinch-walk. He had an awful postseason overall, but that one at-bat atoned for it all. Boggs came off the bench and came up huge with the game on the line.

Graeme Lloyd

Back in 1996, lefty specialists were not really a thing. A few teams had them but they were not widespread yet. The Yankees had picked up Lloyd from the Brewers in a fairly significant August waiver trade. They sent Bob Wickman and Gerald Williams, who were on the big league roster all season, to Milwaukee for Lloyd, Ricky Bones, and Pat Listach. Listach was sent back to the Brewers because of a pre-existing injury and the Yankees received shortstop prospect Gabby Martinez instead. Lloyd himself had elbow problems at the time of the trade.

Lloyd had been very good for the Brewers that year, pitching to a 2.82 ERA (185 ERA+) in 51 innings. He was not a lefty specialist, but he got hammered with the Yankees during the regular season (eleven runs and 17 base-runners in 5.2 innings), so he was relegated to mostly mop-up duty and left-on-left matchup work during the postseason. And Lloyd dominated. His October numbers: 5.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K in eight appearances.

Lloyd faced ten left-handed batters in the postseason and they went 1-for-9 with two strikeouts. Only two hit the ball out of the infield. By the World Series, Torre had developed such trust in Lloyd that he did the unthinkable: he pulled Mariano Rivera from the game in the middle of an inning to get a left-on-left matchup with Lloyd. And he did it twice. In Game Three, Torre pulled Rivera with a runner on first and one out in the eighth inning. The Yankees were up 5-2 and Lloyd got Fred McGriff to fly out and Ryan Klesko to strike out.

Then, in Game Four, Torre pulled Rivera with runners at first and second and one out in the bottom of the ninth. The score was tied 6-6 and the middle of the Atlanta lineup was due up. Mo had thrown 26 pitches in 1.1 innings up to that point and I remember thinking Torre was absolutely insane for pulling him for Lloyd. Then this happened:

“It’s been rough for Lloyd,” said Torre after the game. “All of a sudden he’s being booed, and nobody’s saying anything nice about Bob Watson. Just a lot of garbage. He made the trade, and all of a sudden, Graeme Lloyd is one of our most valuable people.”

“With Milwaukee I had one of my best years, then I was traded and everything hit the fan,” added Lloyd. “It was a tough time for me, and I’ve gotten through that. I’ve looked at these playoffs and the World Series like a clean slate.”

If the Yankees and Watson — then the GM — had gotten their way, Lloyd wouldn’t even have been in the organization for the postseason. The team learned about his elbow woes after the trade and appealed to MLB to rescind the deal. The league refused. The Yankees had traded their fourth outfielder (Williams) and a reliable middle reliever (Wickman) for what amounted to a lefty specialist with a damaged arm. And it worked beautifully.

David Weathers

Rotation depth was a bit of a concern for the Yankees in 1996, especially so after David Cone went down with his aneurysm. At the trade deadline the club made what amounted to a change of scenery swap with the Marlins: 26-year-old righty Mark Hutton was traded to Florida for 26-year-old righty David Weathers. Hutton had 5.04 ERA (100 ERA+) at the time of the trade. Weathers had a 4.54 ERA (90 ERA+). (Park factors, man.)

Weathers made four spot starts and seven relief appearances in pinstripes after the trade, somehow totaling only 17.1 innings. He had a 9.35 ERA (54 ERA+) in those 17.1 innings and walked more batters than he struck out (13 BB and 12 K). Weathers also made three starts with Triple-A Columbus. He actually pitched quite well as a short reliever in September (one run in seven innings) and made the postseason roster. In October, he seemed to specialize in cleaning up after Kenny Rogers.

Series Date Tm Opp Rslt Inngs IP H R ER BB SO BF Pit W.P.A.
ALDS g1 Oct 1 NYY TEX L,2-6 8-GF 2.0 0 0 0 0 2 6 21 0.017
ALDS g4 Oct 5 NYY @ TEX W,6-4 4-6 3.0 1 0 0 0 3 9 41 0.291
ALCS g2 Oct 10 NYY BAL L,3-5 9-GF 0.1 0 0 0 0 0 1 5 0.006
ALCS g4 Oct 12 NYY @ BAL W,8-4 4-6 2.2 3 0 0 0 0 11 45 0.133
WS g1 Oct 20 NYY ATL L,1-12 6-7 1.2 1 0 0 0 0 6 19 -0.001
WS g4 Oct 23 NYY @ ATL W,8-6 5-5 1.0 1 1 1 2 2 6 29 -0.013
WS g6 Oct 26 NYY ATL W,3-2 6-6 0.1 0 0 0 1 1 2 8 0.049
11.0 6 1 1 3 8 41 168 0.476

One run in eleven innings. Rogers started Game Four of the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series, and combined to allow eleven runs and 20 base-runners in seven innings. Weathers came out of the bullpen to replace him and allowed just one run in 6.2 innings. Amazingly, the Yankees won all three games, largely because Weathers came in and didn’t allow the other team to break the game open. His work in Game Four of the ALDS and ALCS was particularly awesome.

”(Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre) is the one who really pushed for us to get David Weathers,” said Torre to the New York Times. ”Mel liked his stuff from when Mel was Houston’s pitching coach the last two years. He felt Weathers could help us out in the bullpen. With my coaches, I trust what they say.”

To win the World Series you’re going to need some players to contribute unexpectedly, and both Lloyd and Weathers did just that. They weren’t even on the team on Opening Day. Boggs had a miserable postseason overall but came through in Game Four of the World Series with his pinch-walk. Without these three doing what they did in October, the Yankees aren’t world champs in 1996.

No Stars, No Scrubs: The 1996 Yankees Won With Depth

(New York Daily News)
(New York Daily News)

When we look back at the 1996 Yankees in another ten years, we might be looking at a team that had six Hall of Famers on the roster. Wade Boggs has already been inducted into Cooperstown, and both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will inevitably join him one day as well. Tim Raines and Andy Pettitte could get in too. Ditto Jorge Posada, who appeared in eight games throughout the 1998 season. (Mostly in September.)

The 1996 Yankees had, at the very least, three Hall of Famers and three others who deserve serious consideration for Cooperstown. And not one of them was in the prime of their career in 1996. Boggs and Raines were both 38 that season, and the other four guys were kids in their early-20s who had yet to play a full big league season and establish themselves at the MLB level.

The 1996 Yankees were not a team of stars. Their biggest name players at the time were David Cone, Jimmy Key, John Wetteland, Doc Gooden, Paul O’Neill, Kenny Rogers, Boggs, and Raines. Cecil Fielder and Darryl Strawberry joined the club at midseason. Bernie Williams was the only position player to reach 4.0 bWAR and he was at exactly 4.0 bWAR. Pettitte and Rivera were the only pitchers to eclipse 3.5 bWAR.

What the 1996 Yankees had was depth. There were good at everything. Offense, defense, pitching, base-running, they could do a little of everything. And that’s what you need to win the World Series. The magic formula is being good at everything, which is much easier said than done. The 1996 Yankees were good at everything.

The Offense

The Yankees had one below-average hitter in their lineup from Opening Day through Game 162: defense-first catcher Joe Girardi. At the very least, they were getting average production from every other position on the field by the end of the season.

C Joe Girardi 31 124 471 124 22 3 2 45 13 4 30 55 .294 .346 .374 82
1B Tino Martinez* 28 155 671 174 28 0 25 117 2 1 68 85 .292 .364 .466 108
2B Mariano Duncan 33 109 417 136 34 3 8 56 4 3 9 77 .340 .352 .500 112
SS Derek Jeter 22 157 654 183 25 6 10 78 14 7 48 102 .314 .370 .430 101
3B Wade Boggs* 38 132 574 156 29 2 2 41 1 2 67 32 .311 .389 .389 98
LF Gerald Williams 29 99 258 63 15 4 5 30 7 8 15 39 .270 .319 .433 88
CF Bernie Williams# 27 143 641 168 26 7 29 102 17 4 82 72 .305 .391 .535 131
RF Paul O’Neill* 33 150 660 165 35 1 19 91 0 1 102 76 .302 .411 .474 123
DH Ruben Sierra# 30 96 407 93 17 1 11 52 1 3 40 58 .258 .327 .403 83

Ruben Sierra and Gerald Williams were replaced by Fielder (108 OPS+) and Strawberry (112 OPS+) at midseason. Raines (114 OPS+) often platooned with Williams anyway, though Williams picked up more total plate appearances in left field. Boggs did not hit for power but he hit for average and got on base. Even at age 38, the dude could hit.

With Fielder and Strawberry in tow, the Yankees went to the postseason with a quality hitter everywhere but behind the plate, and naturally both Girardi (triple in Game Six of the World Series) and Jim Leyritz (three-run homer in Game Four) had huge hits in October. Raines gave them a quality hitting tenth man, so to speak.

The 1996 Yankees had eight players with a 100 or better OPS+ (min. 200 plate appearances), the most in MLB. Boggs just missed making it nine. And yet, their team leader in OPS+ (Bernie) ranked only 31st out of 147 players who qualified for the batting title. Their second best hitter (O’Neill) ranked 47th.

The Yankees were not an offense reliant on one or two players. Superstars are good, but depth is important, and one through eight the 1996 club put together quality at-bats and produced. After adding Fielder and Strawberry, the Yankees scored the sixth most runs in baseball in the second half.

The Defense

There’s no great way to measure defense. Not even today. There are better ways today, but I wouldn’t consider any exact and only a handful are even close to reliable. For what it’s worth, the 1996 Yankees had nine players appear in 54+ games and post 0.0 defensive WAR or better, sixth most in MLB. That means they had nine average or better defenders (relative to their position) play at least one-third of the season. Their only really excruciatingly bad defender was Strawberry, from what I remember. Bernie and Jeter were adequate at that point of their careers. Maybe I’m completely off base here. Correct me if I’m wrong.

The Starters

The Yankees went into that 1996 season with two starters you could have considered sure things. They re-signed Cone and he was one. Rogers was the other — he signed a four-year contract after pitching to a 3.38 ERA (144 ERA+) in 208 innings with the 1995 Rangers. They were the guys Joe Torre was supposed to count on for innings.

The rest of the rotation was filled out by Pettitte, who made 26 starts in 1995, plus Gooden and Key. Doc did not pitch at all in 1995 due to a cocaine suspension and Key made only five starts due to injury. So the rotation was Cone, Rogers, the unproven Pettitte, and two bounceback candidates in Gooden and Key. I’m not sure how many people considered that a championship rotation heading into Spring Training.

Andy Pettitte* 24 21 8 3.87 34 221.0 229 105 95 23 72 162 129 4.08 1.362 2.9 6.6 2.25
Kenny Rogers* 31 12 8 4.68 30 179.0 179 97 93 16 83 92 107 4.83 1.464 4.2 4.6 1.11
Dwight Gooden 31 11 7 5.01 29 170.2 169 101 95 19 88 126 100 4.85 1.506 4.6 6.6 1.43
Jimmy Key* 35 12 11 4.68 30 169.1 171 93 88 21 58 116 107 4.48 1.352 3.1 6.2 2.00
David Cone 33 7 2 2.88 11 72.0 50 25 23 3 34 71 175 3.24 1.167 4.3 8.9 2.09
Ramiro Mendoza 24 4 5 6.79 11 53.0 80 43 40 5 10 34 74 3.91 1.698 1.7 5.8 3.40

Cone, the team’s Opening Day starter was limited to eleven starts by the aneurysm in his armpit. One of those two sure things was gone. Mendoza picked up most of the slack with others like Scott Kamieniecki, Mark Hutton, Brian Boehringer, and David Weathers making spot starts along the way.

The top four starters — Pettitte, Rogers, Gooden, and Key — were all at least average in terms of runs allowed. (Remember when a 5.01 ERA equaled a 100 ERA+? I miss offense.) Cone was excellent in his brief time while Mendoza, who was just a rookie, was pretty crummy. The top four guys plus Cone gave the Yankees 812 innings that were above-average by an okay margin.

In fact, the Yankees got a 4.96 ERA from their starters in 1996, which sounds awful, but it was the sixth best in the league (!). Their 4.56 FIP was third. Adjusted for ballpark, that 4.96 ERA was almost exactly league average. There’s nothing sexy about average or a tick above, but when you have four regular starters like that, it equals wins.

The rotation did not look so overwhelming heading into the season and especially after Cone got hurt, but the top four starters consistently kept the Yankees in games in 1996. And, of course, once the postseason rolled around, Cone, Pettitte, and Key became the go-to guys. The pitching staff shrinks in October.

The Bullpen

Bullpen construction 20 years ago was way different than it is right now. Some teams were still sticking with six-man bullpens at the time, lefty specialists were still not a league-wide thing, and the idea of a designated setup man was still relatively new too. The 1996 Yankees basically had a two-man bullpen plus a bunch of other guys for emergencies.

John Wetteland 29 2.83 62 43 63.2 54 23 20 9 21 69 178 3.83 1.178 1.3 3.0 9.8 3.29
Mariano Rivera 26 2.09 61 5 107.2 73 25 25 1 34 130 240 1.88 0.994 0.1 2.8 10.9 3.82
Bob Wickman 27 4.67 58 0 79.0 94 41 41 7 34 61 107 4.26 1.620 0.8 3.9 6.9 1.79
Jeff Nelson 29 4.36 73 2 74.1 75 38 36 6 36 91 115 3.31 1.493 0.7 4.4 11.0 2.53
Dale Polley* 30 7.89 32 0 21.2 23 20 19 5 11 14 64 6.82 1.569 2.1 4.6 5.8 1.27
Brian Boehringer 27 5.44 15 0 46.1 46 28 28 6 21 37 93 4.68 1.446 1.2 4.1 7.2 1.76
Jim Mecir 26 5.13 26 0 40.1 42 24 23 6 23 38 98 4.93 1.612 1.3 5.1 8.5 1.65
Mark Hutton 26 5.04 12 0 30.1 32 19 17 3 18 25 100 4.69 1.648 0.9 5.3 7.4 1.39
Dave Pavlas 33 2.35 16 1 23.0 23 7 6 0 7 18 216 2.65 1.304 0.0 2.7 7.0 2.57

Nine pitchers threw at least 20 relief innings for the Yankees in 1996, and only one (Polley) was left-handed. (Graeme Lloyd came over in August and threw only 5.2 regular season innings in pinstripes.)

Wetteland and Rivera were Torre’s go-to guys. If the Yankees were winning, Rivera entered the game when the starter exited, and he handed the ball off the Wetteland. If that meant Mo had to throw two or three innings, so be it. Relievers aren’t used like that much these days.

Wickman and Nelson were in the bullpen most of the season as well, and I remember calling them Torre’s “only when losing” relievers. When the Yankees were winning or tied in the late innings, it was Rivera and Wetteland. When they were trailing, it was Wickman and Nelson and everyone else. Come postseason team, Lloyd and Weathers in particular were fantastic middle men.

Thanks mostly to Rivera and Wetteland, New York’s bullpen had a 4.10 ERA and a 3.71 FIP in 1996. Both were the best marks in the AL. The bullpen — Rivera and Wetteland in particular — gave the Yankees the closest thing they’d get to star-caliber performance. They were simply pretty good at everything, and that’s the formula they rode to their first World Series title in 18 years.

The Return of Straw


I grew up in Brooklyn in a family of almost all Mets fans. I became a Yankees fan because of my grandfather. My grandparents used to watch me when I was a kid while my parents worked — they lived literally right next door, so it was pretty convenient — and I used to hang out and watch games with my grandfather, hence the Yankees fandom.

Even as a young Yankees fan, Darryl Strawberry was my favorite player growing up. My family took me to whole bunch of Mets games as a kid and Strawberry mashed a ton of dingers. I loved it. He was the man. Plus he had such a sweet swing:

Darryl Strawberry

*fans self*

Needless to say, I was thrilled when the Yankees picked Strawberry up in 1995. I didn’t really understand the severity of his off-the-field issues — he was suspended for cocaine use for the first half of the 1995 season — but I was glad my favorite player growing up was on my favorite team. It was awesome.

Strawberry became a free agent after that 1995 season and no team signed him. He instead had to head to an independent league and hope someone would grab him at midseason. With the St. Paul Saints in 1996, the then-34-year-old Strawberry hit .435/.538/1.000 with 18 home runs in 29 games. Yeah, he still had something left in the tank.

With Ruben Sierra not providing much thunder at DH and the Yankees lacking power in general, the team purchased Strawberry’s contract from the Saints on Independence Day in 1996. George Steinbrenner loved ex-stars and he was very willing to give players a second chance. The Boss was so willing to help that Strawberry’s signing bonus was paid directly to his ex-wife to cover his back child support.

“There have been a lot of questions about that, the bitterness of my ex-wife,” said Strawberry to Jason Diamos. “Everybody talks about the child support I owe her. They never give me credit for the $3.5 million dollars I’ve paid her … I came back because I can play. I’ve got money deferred. I would have been okay.”

After two quick tune-up games with Triple-A Columbus, Strawberry was back in the big leagues with the Yankees, joining them at midseason like he did a year earlier. (Except this time there was no cocaine suspension.) “Yes, I’m Darryl Strawberry. Yes, I’ve had a great deal of problems,” he said. “But I’ve also had a great deal of pride. I’m recovering. I’m moving my life forward … This might be my last opportunity. So be it. I’m not going to die if I don’t play baseball anymore.”

One of the reasons the Yankees were so great in the late-90s was the veteran players who produced in part-time roles. Guys like Strawberry and Tim Raines accepted they were no longer everyday players. They swallowed their pride, slid into reduced roles, and produced. “I’m not here to upset any chemistry,” said Strawberry. “I’m just here to do what’s asked of me.”

Straw’s return did not get off to a great start. He went 0-for-10 with a walk and two strikeouts in his first three games back while serving as the DH. Three straight two-hit games followed, including a two-homer game against the Orioles in his fourth game back. Two weeks later, Strawberry hit his third home run since coming back, this one a walk-off shot and the 300th dinger of his career.

“When I came back out (for the curtain call) I was thanking the fans for accepting me back with open arms,” said Strawberry to Selena Roberts after the game. “After all I’ve been through, that was really special. They’ve been really patient … Today is even more special because this is New York. This is where I started my career. It’s where I’ve had all of my success.”

Strawberry hit eleven home runs with the Yankees in 1996 and he seemed to hit them in bunches. He hit two against the Orioles on July 13th, he hit three against the White Sox on August 6th, then two days later he hit two more against the ChiSox. Strawberry also bunched some homers together in late-August.

The Yankees acquired Cecil Fielder at the trade deadline, which pushed Strawberry into left field, replacing Gerald Williams. The move seemed to agree with Strawberry. He hit .224/.350/.418 as the DH and .281/.363/.523 as the left fielder. Lots of players struggle with the move to DH — Strawberry was new to the position after playing his entire career in the NL and only 15 games at DH in 1995 — because they don’t know how to handle the downtime between at-bats.

After coming back at midseason, Strawberry hit .262/.359/.490 (112 OPS+) with those eleven home runs in 237 plate appearances and 63 games. He held his own against southpaws — 124 OPS+ against righties and 109 OPS+ against lefties — so he didn’t need to be platooned either. The Yankees needed an offensive jolt at midseason and they got it from Strawberry and Fielder.

Strawberry fouled a ball off his right big toe late in the regular season and dealt with the injury throughout the postseason. “I know they told me it wasn’t fractured, but it doesn’t feel right. Who’d have thought a toe injury could be that painful?” he said to Jack O’Connell. Strawberry served as the DH in Game One of the ALDS against the Rangers — Fielder did not play — pinch-hit in Game Two, then sat out the rest of the series because of the toe.

The injury still hobbled Strawberry in the ALCS. He pinch-hit and played four innings in right field in Game One against the Orioles, sat out Game Two against the lefty David Wells, then returned to the outfield in Game Three. Strawberry hit two home runs in Game Four — he gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead with a second inning solo shot and tacked on two insurance runs with an eighth inning blast.

Strawberry went deep again in the Game Five series-clinching win — he went back-to-back with Fielder — and went 5-for-12 (.417) with three homers and five runs driven in in the series. He also fouled another pitch off his right big toe in that Game Five win. “I’ve kind of got the feeling it may be broken,” he said to reporters after the game. Torre added, “If he can’t play, he won’t be on the roster.”

Strawberry did make the World Series roster and he did play in Game One, at least before being pulled in the seventh inning of the blowout loss. He sat in Game Two against Tom Glavine, then played the outfield in Games Three through Six. The toe was clearly bothering him though. Strawberry went 3-for-16 (.188) in the Fall Classic and mostly hobbled around the outfield.

Aside from Games Four and Five of the ALCS against the Orioles, Strawberry didn’t have much impact in the postseason, mostly because he was nursing an injury. He did give the club a big lift during the regular season though. He added power, added depth to the lineup — “Some guys have a presence at the plate. Darryl has that sitting in the dugout,” said Paul O’Neill to O’Connell — and made good on what could have possibly been his last chance in MLB.

“(Playing in St. Paul) allowed me to find out who I am, it allowed me to have no pride. I had forgotten baseball could be fun,” said Strawberry after rejoining the Yankees in July. “Without George Steinbrenner, I wouldn’t be here.”

Wednesday Night Open Thread

We are three-fifths of the way through Retro Week and I’m still hoping to post a Retro Week themed mailbag on Friday. We’ve gotten a few retro questions but I’m not sure how many I can actually answer. I may be biting off more than I can chew. Anyway, the email address is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. Fire away.

This is tonight’s open thread. The Nets are playing and there’s a whole bunch of college basketball on the schedule, and that’s about it. Talk about any other than politics or religion right here.

We Play Today, We Win Today, Das It: The Out of Nowhere Greatness of Mariano Duncan

(New York Daily News)
(New York Daily News)

To win a championship in any sport, a team is going to need some players to come out of nowhere and be surprise contributors. Very few teams are truly far above everyone else in terms of talent level and very rarely does everything go right. There are injuries and poor performances, especially in baseball. Those unsung heroes are a necessity to win a title, not a luxury.

In 1996, no player made a bigger out of nowhere contribution to the Yankees than Mariano Duncan. Signed to a two-year contract before the season, the team planned to use the then 33-year-old Duncan as a bench player. He spent the first eleven seasons of his career in the NL and had experience at every position other than pitcher and catcher. Duncan was a quality reserve player.

“I’m here for one reason. I signed with the Yankees to do what’s best for the ball club,” said Duncan to Charlie Nobles in Spring Training. The Yankees wanted to break in rookie shortstop Derek Jeter with veteran Tony Fernandez sliding over to second base, but Fernandez broke his elbow diving for a ball late in camp. Duncan suddenly went from backup player to starting second baseman.

“I hate to use the word desperate, but we really need to make a deal,” said Joe Torre following Fernandez’s injury. A deal never came. Jeter started at shortstop, Duncan started at second base, and young Andy Fox made the club as the backup infielder. And it worked perfectly. Jeter was great and Duncan opened the season with an eleven-game hitting streak. He hit .333 and drove in nine runs from the bottom of the lineup during the eleven games.

On July 4th, Duncan’s batting line was sitting at .295/.318/.420, which is better than anything the Yankees could have reasonably expected from their utility player turned started second baseman. This is a guy who hit .272/.297/.407 (90 OPS+) in over 2,000 plate appearances from 1991-95. Duncan went 3-for-4 with a triple and a home run on July 5th. His batting average never dipped below .305 the rest of the season.

From that July 5th game through the end of the season, a span of 80 team games, Duncan hit .382/.383/.575 with 21 doubles in 214 plate appearances. He rarely walked as the on-base percentage suggests, but he was living the good BABIP life (.428) and hit close to .400 for half-a-season. On top of that, Duncan was a Grade-A clubhouse dude.

“He’s been a good pickup for us,” said Torre to Nobles at the end of Spring Training. “Besides being a great utility player, he’s outstanding in the clubhouse with the younger players. When you have a guy like that around, he tells the young players what they need to know before you have to.”

As Duncan tells it, he and Jeter were working out on the field before a game in the middle of the season. Duncan asked Jeter whether he was ready to play that day, but it didn’t come out as intended because English is Duncan’s second language.

“We play today?” asked Duncan.

“We win today,” Jeter replied.

“Das it,” said Duncan.

The slogan for a championship team was born. Duncan had t-shirts made and the Yankees wore them around the clubhouse. Soon fans were bringing banners to the ballpark and hanging them from the facing of the upper deck. “We play today, we win today, das it.”

And the Yankees did a lot of winning that summer. At one point from late-April through late-July they went 51-30 during an 81-game stretch. Duncan was not necessarily a catalyst, but he was one of those surprise contributors. He closed out the season with a .340/.352/.500 (112 OPS+) batting line in 417 plate appearances. It was only the second time in his career that he finished a season as a league-average or better hitter.

In the ALDS against the Rangers, Duncan went 5-for-16 (.313) and drove in three runs in four games. His two-out single in the top of the ninth in Game Three capped off the team’s come from behind rally and gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the eventual win.

Duncan didn’t hit a whole lot in the ALCS or World Series — he went 4-for-34 (.118) in the ten games — but he helped the Yankees get there during the regular season and the ALDS. He wasn’t supposed to play much at all, remember. The plan was something like 250 at-bats at all sorts of different positions.

Instead, the Fernandez injury pushed Duncan into the everyday second base job, and he ran with it. He had an out of nowhere above-average offensive season, he played solid defense on the middle infield, he was a plus in the clubhouse, and he was responsible for the slogan that stuck with the team all season. They played, they won. Das it.

Reviewing the Yankees’ 1996 Draft Class

It’s Retro Week here at RAB and the gist is we are looking back at the 1996 season. In this post, we are going to look at how the Yankees did in that year’s MLB Draft.

Milton. (Getty)
Milton. (Getty)

The 1996 MLB Draft was held from June 4-5, 1996. The first overall pick? RHP Kris Benson out of Clemson University to the Pirates. There were notable ex-Yankees picked throughout the draft (Eric Chavez, Shawn Chacon, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano, Travis Hafner, for instance) but in this post, we are going to look at the specially notable ones (because it’s only seven players out of literally a hundred) that the Yankees picked. If you would like to see the complete list of picks, here it is.

First Round, 20th overall pick: LHP Eric Milton out of University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)

The Yankees originally held the 24th overall pick, which they lost to Texas by signing Kenny Rogers. However, they had garnered the 20th pick earlier by losing Randy Velarde to the California Angels. By the way, Texas used the 24th to select RHP Sam Marsonek, who only pitched 1.1 IP in his ML career (with the Yankees, nonetheless).

There’s not a lot of info on Milton from back then but John Sickels of Minor League Ball wrote up his career path. On Milton’s value as an amateur, Sickels wrote “He was considered a completely legitimate mid-first-round pick, on the basis of above average stuff for a lefty, solid command, and some remaining projection.” This January 1998 New York Times article by Buster Olney has some more interesting tidbits. According to Milton’s college coach, the lefty threw about 82-83 mph when he first enrolled and took that up into the 92-93 mph range within two years after using a weightlifting program used by the Terrapins football players.

Not only was Milton a lefty who could sit in low-90’s, but he also had good feel for strike zone. According to Olney, Milton “once pitched 27 1/3 straight innings without a walk.” His junior year stats also highlight it (118 K’s and 17 walks in 90.0 IP). Because he is a lefty with good pitchability and low-90’s heat, Milton was frequently compared to a familiar face.

”The reports we have is he’s another Andy Pettitte,” said George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner. ”I’ve even heard one of the pitching coaches we listen to say that he’s ahead of Andy Pettitte at this stage in his career.”

One National League executive rated Milton’s skills based on his team’s scouting reports: very good fastball, good changeup, a curveball that needs refining, very good control. ”He has a deceptive pick-off move,” the executive said. ”Like Pettitte.”

After missing pro ball action in 1996 (due to signing late), Milton had a pretty solid 1997 in which he coasted through High-A and AA: 14-6, 3.11 ERA, 28 GS, 171.0 IP with 3.24 SO/W ratio combined in both levels. Before the 1998 season began, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins as the crown jewel piece of the Chuck Knoblauch trade. The Twins apparently decided that the lefty was ML-ready and skipped him over the AAA level.

All in all, Milton enjoyed a nice ML career. He tossed a no-hitter against the Anaheim Angels on September 11, 1999, made the 2001 AL All Star team, and landed a big free agent deal with the Reds (three-year, $25 million signed after the 2004 season). I think a lot of draft prospects would take that outcome. He retired after the 2009 season, leaving behind a 89-85, 4.99 ERA record in his 11 ML season career.

In some ways, the Yankees’ 2015 1st round pick James Kaprielian reminds me of Milton a bit – both college pitchers that aren’t the sexiest but projected to move through the system quickly.

Second Round, 59th overall pick: LHP Jason Coble out of Lincoln County HS (Fayetteville, Tennessee)

Not exactly a household name, it seems. In ESPN’s 2001 article reviewing the 1996 draft, Sickels only had one sentence to say on Coble: “… didn’t develop.”

I wish I could find more info on Coble but it seems pretty sparse throughout the internet. He had a nice pro debut as an 18-year old with the GCL Yankees: 1-1, 2.48 ERA in 32.2 IP with 40 strikeouts. The next season at Low-A Greensboro, however, he completely lost his command, walking 96 batters in 120.1 IP. And, for whatever reason, he never pitched in pros again. (Nope, no record of him playing in the indy ball either.)

Third Round, 89th overall pick: 1B Nick Johnson out of McClatchy HS (Sacramento, California)

Now here’s a pick that turned out much better. Not only did Johnson make it to the majors, he also made one of the biggest lasting impacts in minors on the way. Even if he had a solid ML career, his MiLB numbers are so big that some consider him a flop.

Johnson pretty much rode a bulldozer through Eastern League pitching in 1999. Let’s start with the fact that he hit for a phenomenal .345/.525/.548 line. As a 20-year old, he was four years younger than the average age of the league competition. He also walked considerably more (21.0 BB%) than striking out (15.0 K%). He reached the base 52.5% of the time – think about how insane that figure that is.

NJ. (AP)

Johnson’s excellence in minors got the experts raving as well. John Sickels, in a 1999 interview, said that he would choose Nick Johnson as a prospect to build a team around. After the torrid 1999 season, Johnson was named no. 5 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, behind Rick Ankiel, Pat Burrell, Corey Patterson and Vernon Wells. His 2000 BA scouting report is just rave after rave. Good approach, quick hands, keen eyes, good defense, etc. – he just seemed like a power boost or two away from being a perennial 1B All Star.

“Tino Martinez’ contract runs out after 2000,” wrote David Rawnsley of BA, “…with Martinez noticeably slipping the past three years, there’s a perfect opportunity to prepare for the transition to Johnson.”

Unfortunately, not everything goes accordingly to the best laid-out plans. Before the 2000 season started, Johnson hurt his wrist and sat out for the year. That was a troubling sign to come for rest of his career. When he was healthy, he was a very productive hitter that any team would love to have. But in ten ML seasons, Johnson only had five with more than 40o plate appearances.

As you may know, Johnson was traded to the Montreal Expos as a part of the Javier Vazquez trade. He pretty much spent his best years with the Expos/Nationals organization, hitting for overall .868 OPS in five seasons. He did sign with the Yankees for a one-year, $5.5 mil contract after the 2009 season. I think the consensus at the time was that if Johnson were to be able to stay healthy, he’d be a substantial help. Unfortunately, he only managed a .693 OPS in 24 games before going down with a season-ending wrist injury. That was pretty much the beginning of the end for Johnson. He got another big league trial with the Orioles in 2012 but went down with another injury after 38 games and never played in MLB again.

Fourth Round, 119th overall pick: C Tito Candelaria out of Fernando Callejo HS (Manati, Puerto Rico)

Ho-hum, another pick that didn’t pan out well. Candelaria did last longer than Coble in minors though, disappearing off the record after hitting for an overall .048/.067/.048 line in 11 games in 2000.

Actually, as a catcher drafted out of high school, it seemed like he wasn’t having a horrible time in minors up to the 1998 season, when he hit for a .306/.475/.361 line in Short-Season A league. Sure, it’s a limited amount of action but I’d say it’s got some promise to it. However, he missed the entire 1999 season (pretty easy to presume that he suffered a substantial injury that impacted his skill set moving forward) and could not get it going in 2000.

Fifth Round, 149th overall pick: RHP Zach Day out of LaSalle HS (Cincinnati, Ohio)

Here’s a guy who had himself an okay ML career. I remember seeing Zach Day’s name on MVP Baseball 2004 once in awhile and … I guess there’s not much else to it. But anyways, like Milton, Day found himself being traded out of Yankee organization before making it to the majors. Day was traded to the Indians along with RHP Jake Westbrook and OF Ricky Ledee for David Justice.

Before the trade, Day was doing quite well in the 2000 season. Starting the season with the Low-A Greensboro, Day flashed a 1.90 ERA in 13 starts (101 K’s in 85.1 IP) before earning a promotion to High-A Tampa, where he had a 4.19 ERA in seven starts before the trade. Indians sent him straight to Double-A Akron after the trade, where he finished the season.

Day ended up getting traded in 2001 to the Montreal Expos for Milton Bradley straight up. He made his ML debut with the Expos in 2002 and stayed in the organization until being traded to Colorado in 2005. He was claimed back on waivers by the Nationals in 2006 but suffered shoulder tendinitis to end the season and, eventually, his ML career.

In his ML career, Day had a 21-27 record with 4.66 ERA in 373 IP. Not really flashy or anything but for a fifth rounder, he could have done a lot worse.

Sixth round, 179th overall pick:  RHP Brian Reith out of Concordian Lutheran HS (Fort Wayne, Indiana)

Like Milton and Day, Reith is another pick that later ended up being traded as a chip to acquire a big league player. During the 2000 season, Reith was a part of the package (along with Drew Henson, Ed Yarnell and Jackson Melian) sent to Cincinnati Reds that got Denny Neagle to the Yankees. Of all the four minor leaguers, Reith ended up becoming the only one to make it to the majors with Cincinnati. In three ML seasons with the Reds, Reith compiled -1.4 career fWAR, so take that for what you will. His best season was in 2003, when he pitched for a 4.11 ERA in 61.1 IP as a reliever. Given that his ERA+ was 101, not too shabby.

Well, let’s take it back to before he was traded. He was a starting pitching prospect who flashed potential with solid numbers. In the 2000 season, before getting traded, Reith pitched for a 2.18 ERA in 119.2 IP with the High-A Tampa Yankees. According to a 2000 Newsday article, a scout rated Reith’s “fastball, slider, changeup as major-league ready.” I don’t think he was ever touted to be a top prospect but it seemed like he was worthy of taking a flier.

Anyways, after his 2004 stint with the Reds, he bounced around the minors, indy ball, Mexican League, Taiwanese league, etc. Another pick that you can say that reached the Majors.

30th round, 899th overall pick: OF Marcus Thames out of Texas State University (San Marcos, Texas)

From the seventh round and on, there weren’t many players worth writing up. Yankees did draft RHP Matt Ginter in the 17th round but he opted to attend Mississippi State and later was drafted by the White Sox in the first round of 1999 draft. There also was RHP Nick Stocks, who was their 15th rounder. He decided to attend Florida State University and was later drafted by the Cardinals in the first round of the 1999 draft.

Thames not only made it to the bigs but also actually had a worthwhile ten-season ML career. After showing flashes of power for first few pro seasons, Thames broke out with the Double-A Norwich in 2001, hitting for a .321/410/.598 line in 139 games. In 2002, he struggled pretty mightily in Triple-A, hitting for only .207/.297/.378 in 107 games. He did, however, make his ML debut that season with the Yankees (thanks to an injury to Juan Rivera) and hit a home run off of Randy Johnson on the first pitch he saw.

I really don’t think you could have asked for a better way to introduce yourself in the majors. Big Unit was still more than just downright scary that season and you hit a three-run homer that breaks a 0-0 tie? Awesome. Thames only played seven ML games until he was sent down to Triple-A again. The homer was one of the only three hits he had in 13 plate appearances.

Thames stayed in Triple-A Columbus to begin the 2003 season and was traded to the Rangers for Ruben Sierra. After that season, he was granted free agency and signed with the Detroit Tigers, where he turned into a decent offensive tool for few seasons. For six seasons in Detroit, Thames hit for a .245/.307/.501 line, good for a 108 OPS+. Not so shabby for a former 30th round pick huh? His best season came in 2006, when he hit for a career-best .882 OPS with 26 home runs for the AL Champions Tigers.

After the 2009 season, Thames signed a one-year deal with the Yankees and had a pretty good season as a bench bat. He hit for a .288/.350/.491 line in 237 plate appearances with 12 home runs. Thames spent one more ML season as a Dodger in 2011 (.576 in 70 PA’s) and retired.

Thames was recently in Yankees-related headlines for being promoted as the team’s assistant hitting coach, teaming up with Alan Cockrell. Good for him.

88th round, 1,718th overall pick: 3B Scott Seabol out of West Virginia University (Morgantown, West Virginia)

You read that correctly. Yankees did have an 88th round pick that later made it to the bigs. Scott Seabol, a West Virginia Mountaineer, had slim odds to make it to the big leagues. For a college guy out of the 88th round to have a chance to get to the majors, he’d have to hit darn well to at least get a consideration. In 1999 as a 24-year old in Low-A Greensboro, he hit a .315/.370/.521. Okay, not bad. But then again, he was a 24-year old in Low-A ball, 2.4 years older than average competition. A year after, with the Double-A Greenwich, Seabol hit for a .296/.355/.517 line.

In April 8, 2001, Scott Seabol finally made his ML debut, making himself, at the time, as the lowest draft pick ever to make an ML appearance. He was on the roster very temporarily because of LF Henry Rodriguez’s strained lower back. That day, the Yankees were blowing out the Blue Jays to the tune of 13-5 in the bottom of sixth inning when Seabol came up to bat with two outs and two runners on base. Pinch-hitting for DH David Justice, Seabol lined out softly to second base after battling Dan Plesac to a seven-pitch full-count at-bat. Because he was stepping in as a DH, he didn’t get to field. That was pretty much it for Seabol. He was sent down to the minors on April 20 to make room for relief pitcher Adrian Hernandez. Seabol spent rest of the season in the minors.

After being cut by the Yankees in the 2002-03 offseason, Seabol signed with the Brewers and was cut again only after 25 games. The Cardinals then took a flyer on him and Seabol played in their Triple-A Memphis team for the rest of 2003 and the entirety of 2004. In 2005 however, an injury to Scott Rolen bought Seabol another ML shot. That season, Seabol did have his big moment as a big leaguer, which happened to take place against the Yankees. In the bottom of the seventh on June 12, Seabol took Tanyon Sturtze deep for a go-ahead two-run homer to give St. Louis a 3-2 lead. The Cardinals scored two more later that inning and beat New York 5-3.

It seemed like to have that big moment come against the Yankees was pretty significant to Seabol himself.

Seabol said, “To come when it did makes it 10 times better.

“I’ve only been here a month. To have it come against the Yankees may have made it a little nicer, but I just want to help the team win.”

Seabol would stay on the Cardinals ML roster for rest of the season, hitting for a .219/.272/.295 line. After that season, he bounced around minors, Korea and Japan until calling it quits after hitting for only .628 OPS for the Hiroshima Carps of NPB in the 2009 season. Sure, he had a very brief and unspectacular ML career, but for a very unlauded 88th draft pick to accomplish all that is quite amazing to me. Bravo to him.